Things NOT to Say to Someone Recently Divorced
1. "But you two always seemed so happy..."
I heard this a lot after my first marriage ended some 20 years ago. My marital troubles weren't the sort to manifest in public scenes or to burst out in scandals. We had two healthy and winsome little kids, shared a sense of humor, liked many of the same people and hid the unhappiness behind closed doors. No one—no one we knew, anyway—saw me throw his McDonald's cheeseburger out the car window in a frustrated fit; and, no one saw us talking, calmly, hours into the night about how to tell the children.
So, of course people who didn't really know us were surprised. But when they expressed that surprise—"but you two always seemed so happy," it often felt like an accusation. Their comment pushed me right into defensive mode: "Well, it may have appeared that way but, truly, we were fighting all the time..." No matter to whom I was speaking, a neighbor, a second-cousin, or how casual the relationship, I felt the need to justify what we had done—only wondering afterward why I had shared my private life. So, even if a divorce surprises you, saying that it was you who didn't see what was happening—instead of implying that maybe the divorcing couple has made a mistake—is much kinder. My favorite reaction: "I'm sorry. I had no idea."
2. "Did you try couples therapy?"
Asking a newly divorced person if she tried therapy, or a vacation without the kids, or regular date nights or any other way to forestall the divorce is going to play right into that voice in her head, the voice that says: You should have tried harder. You rushed into this.
It's an inevitable worry when the stakes are so high—though, in my experience, more people rush into marriage than rush into divorce. I surely did. I knew my first husband for less than half a year when we got engaged, and no one tried to slow us down. But fast forward eight years and, yes, we did go to couples counseling—where, after many months, on a particular evening, I realized we had entered the Humpty-Dumpty stage. All the king's horses and all the king's men...
It wasn't what we were saying. It was the place where we sat. The therapist was a woman in her seventies, and her office was in her house, her husband occasionally visible in the garden or audible from upstairs. And there was something about being in that home, feeling the complexity of all those years of two people living together, raising children into adulthood together, somehow "making it" for decades, that made me realize that, try as we might, our marriage could not survive. It was, quite simply, unimaginable to be at their stage and still be together. So, in a strange and decidedly unexpected way, it was the couples therapy that made me certain we should divorce.
Still, that sense of certainty faltered at times, even through the final decision. (The children! The children!) So, anything that sounded remotely like, "Are you sure you needed to do this?" or "Are you certain you tried every solution?" buried me again in paralyzing insecurity.
3. "I hope you have a good lawyer."
Okay. If it's your sister who's getting divorced, and you know she is up against a real so-and-so and you're superclose, you get to say this. But for anyone outside the inner circle to suggest that the end of a marriage is a war, complete with sides, is just plain wrong. And it can also feel like a back-door way of asking for lurid details.
Trust me, if the newly divorced person wants you to know about his or her legal situation, whether that's involving custody, alimony or child support, he or she will be the one to bring it up. And if she does, don't be too critical of whatever settlement she's reached. Though my ex and I shared many expenses, I never received formal child support, and people told me endlessly I should have fought for it, should have gotten myself some shark of a lawyer to do better for me; but those people didn't know the whole story, and their reproaches, kindly meant as they were, caused me social discomfort, because the details were all way too intimate, and were also genuinely painful, for reasons that I didn't want to share. There is no one-size-fits-all settlement for every divorce. A family is a complex and, sometimes, very fragile thing—never more so than when reconfiguring itself into two new parts.